Kenley Wing Leaders

Wing Commander J A Kent (left) talking with Wing Commander N W Zimmerman.
© IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205207977
Wing Commander Wells shown sitting earlier in his career as a Flight-Lieutenant sitting in the cockpit of his No 485 (New Zealand) Squadron Spitfire VB at RAF Kenley
Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205210160
Wing Commander Charles Brian Kingcombe, Officer Commanding 92 Squadron RAF At Biggin Hill on 14 June 1942, immediately prior to his posting to lead the Kenley Wing
IWM Collection
Wing Commander Hugh Godefroy standing in front of his personalised Spitfire
Courtesy of The Canadian Fighter Pilot & Air Gunner Museum (www.flyingforyourlife.com)

As Fighter Command looked to the future in 1941 following the end of the Battle of Britain and major German daylight activity over Britain, it began to “lean forward into France”. The appointment of Trafford Leigh-Mallory replacing Keith Park at 11 Group in December, introduced the idea of large offensive fighter sweeps over northern France. Developing his “Big Wing” concept, Leigh-Mallory introduced wing-sized fighter sweeps over northern France, sometimes escorting a squadron of bombers. However, Fighter Command quickly found that the Luftwaffe often chose to ignore such incursions, much as it had itself ignored the German “Free Hunt” sorties during the Battle of Britain. This was in part because fighter only operations posed no direct threat to ground installations and because a large proportion of the Luftwaffe was redeployed for operations in the Balkans and ultimately Operation Barbarossa. As the war progressed, and the Spitfire developed in power and potency, Wing operations became increasingly effective as an offensive capability; forcing the Luftwaffe to give combat, often at a disadvantage in numbers but increasingly with a lack of skilled pilots. 

In order to manage these formations the role was given the official title of “Wing Commander (Flying)”. The officers performing this role were already experienced pilots, initially through service during the Battle of Britain and many would have had what we consider today as “ace” status having shot down 5 enemy aircraft. The position did not have any administrative or command responsibility the incumbent had to have proven fighting ability and the tactical ability to control more than one squadron in the air. Probably the most widely known Wing Leaders stationed at RAF Kenley were Brian Kingcombe and James Edgar “Johnnie” Johnson, The latter described the role as “The Wing Leader’s job was every fighter pilot’s dream, as the Wing Commander (Flying) responsible for his wing’s performance in the air. The logistics were left to the Station Commander, usually a Group Captain, and the wing’s three squadron commanders”.  However, the Kenley Wing was commanded by a number of other notable names during its existence. Between January 1941 and April 1944, when the last of the squadrons left, RAF Kenley had ten wing leaders.

In some respects the Wing concept was the opposite of the image of a fighter pilot as it required all pilots to maintain flying and radio discipline. The Wing Commander gave authority for enemy contacts to be pursued. Often small groups of enemy fighters flying at low level were ignored as they were often bait for larger formations flying much higher.

Below we highlight some of the names who held the rank of Wing Commander (Flying) at RAF Kenley:

John R A Peel

The first of RAF Kenley’s Wing Commanders was John R A Peel who arrived at RAF Kenley having commanded 145 Squadron during the Battle of Britain based at RAF Tangmere, being credited with or claiming the shooting down of seven enemy aircraft. Peel joined the RAF in 1930, graduating from RF Cranwell in 1932. Initially joining 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford, he was posted to 801 (Fleet Fighter) Squadron at RAF Duxford and HMS Furious; at this point naval aviation was controlled by the RAF, the Fleet Air Arm not regaining its independence until 1937. Between 1935 and July 1940 he held a number of instructor and staff positions before joining 145 Squadron in July 1940. Following his appointment as Wing Commander at RAF Kenley, the Wing was active conducting patrols, fighter sweeps, bomber escort and Circus operations over northern France. Whilst in command, Peel is credited with damaging 2 Me.109s at Merck airfield. He was also shot down and parachuted into the Channel in July 1941, following his rescue he was leading the Wing the following day. He was posted to RAF Debden as Sector Commander and Wing Leader. He retired from the RAF in January 1948 with the rank of Group Captain.

John A Kent

John Peel was succeeded at RAF Kenley by John A Kent or “Kentowski” as he was known. A Canadian who joined the RAF in January 1935, Peel had learnt to fly in Canada and obtained a commercial license in 1933. Pre-war, John Kent served with 19 Squadron and the Royal Aircraft Establishment. He received the Air Force Cross for work on balloon cable research during which he performed 300 collisions. During May 1940, he was at RAF Heston then joining number 7 Operational Training Unit to convert to Hurricanes. In august he joined 303 Squadron on their formation, as Flight Commander. During operations in September 1940 he is credited with three enemy aircraft, plus one damaged and a probable. At the end of October he was posted to command 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill. He returned to RAF Heston in March 1941 to organise the Training Wing of 53 Operational Training Unit which was then forming, with the rank of Wing Commander Flying. He then had a two-month spell leading the Polish Wing at RAF Northolt, during which earned his nickname. At the beginning of August he took over as Wing Commander at Kenley. The Wing at this time comprised 452 (Australian), 485 (New Zealand) and 602 (City of Glasgow) squadrons. Operations during this time were primarily “Circus” sorties, sometimes in concert with Tangmere Wing. Peel was awarded a Bar to his Distinguished Flying Cross on October 1941, just after he had transferred to 53 Operational Training Unit; the citation read: “ This officer has led his wing in an efficient and fearless manner on many operational sorties within the last two months. He has now destroyed a further 6 enemy aircraft, bringing his total successes to 13 destroyed and 3 probably destroyed. Wing Commander Kent has set a grand example.” Following a lecture tour of Canada and the United States at the end of 1941, Peel spent the reminder of the war in Staff or training roles. He retired from the RAF on 1 December 1956 as a Group Captain.

Robert F Boyd

Robert Boyd succeeded Edgar Ryder as Kenley’s Wing Commander Flying in December 1941. He had joined 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force in 1935, being commissioned that November. 602 Squadron moved to 11 Group in August 1940 at RAF Westhampnett, in the Tangmere Sector. Between then and the end of November, Boyd is credited with 9 “kills, 6 shared, 2 damaged, 6 shares and a probable. Boyd was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in September 1940, with the Bar following in October. In December 1940 he was given command of 54 Squadron at RAF Catterick where he continued his success, achieving a further 4 confirmed “kills”. At the end of July 1941 he was posted to 58 Operational Training Unit at RAF Grangemouth, remaining there until he became Kenley’s Wing Commander Flying in December 1941. Remarkably, at this time the Wing still comprised 452 (Australian), 485 (New Zealand) and 602 (City of Glasgow) squadrons. Quite regularly during the winter of1942, Boyd would fly patrols with Group Captain Victor Beamish, the station commander. It was on one of these patrols, on 12 February, that Boyd and Beamish spotted the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau making their Channel dash as part of Operation Cerberus. Due to the seniority of the officers involved in the report, Fighter Command accepted the report as correct having originally disregarded an earlier report from pilots of 91 Squadron. This ultimately resulted in the fateful attack by 825 Squadron Fleet Air Arm which resulted in all but 5 of the aircrew involved and a posthumous Victoria Cross for Lieutenant-Commander Eugene Esmonde. During subsequent fighting Spitfires from 452 (Australian) Squadron attacked an escorting German destroyer without loss. Wing operations from the beginning of 1942 comprised mainly “Circus” and “Rodeo” sorties often in conjunction with other 11 Group wings and sometimes even those from 12 Group. Te size of these operations demonstrates the growing strength of Fighter Command and a policy of blooding pilots wherever possible. Robert Boyd was transferred to the Far East in June 1942 where he commanded 2934 Wing in Burma for a time. Having attained the rank of Group Captain, he was released from the RAF in 1945.

Edward P Wells

Edward Wells was born in New Zealand, accepted into the Royal New Zealand Air Force on a short-service commission in April 1939. His training commenced in October 1939 and having qualified, sailed for England in June 1940. Wells saw service in the Battle of Britain with 41 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch, becoming the first British-based fighter pilot to engage the Italians on 11 November 1940. When 485 (New Zealand) Squadron was formed in March 1941, Wells joined them at RAF Driffield on the 15th. He scored the squadron’s first victory during a bomber escort mission on 5 July. During the next 6 months he achieved 6 confirmed “kills”, 2 probable and 2 damaged. During this period he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar. On 22 November 1941 he was given command of 485 (New Zealand) Squadron at RAF Kenley. He also led the squadron in sorties against Operation Cerberus on 12 February. During the second half of April 1942 he flew as Kenley Wing leader on numerous “Circus” and “Rodeo” missions, picking up where Robert Boyd left off. Again, these missions frequently involved other Wings from Fighter Command including both 10 and 12 Groups. He was appointed Acting Wing Commander on 5 May and undertook many sorties leading the Wing, frequently twice a day. He was replaced by Brian Kingcombe at the end of June, then loaned back to the New Zealand government. Wells returned to the UK in April 1943 to attend RAF Staff College Between March and November 1944 he led the Tangmere, Detling and West Malling Wings. Released from the Royal New Zealand Air Force in February 1947, he took up a permanent commission in the RAF retiring in June 1960 as a Group Captain. “Johnnie” Johnson described him thus; “Generally acknowledged amongst fighter pilots to be the finest shot in the air was the New Zealander “Hawk-Eye” Wells. Before the war he had won several clay-pigeon championships in New Zealand and established himself as that country’s number one marksman with a twelve bore. Aptly dubbed Hawk-Eye during the Battle of Britain because of his amazing eyesight, he shot down many enemy aircraft whenever he got within range.”

Hugh C Godefroy

Assuming the mantle from, “Johnnie” Johnson in September 1943, as the last of Kenley’s Wing Commanders, was the Canadian Hugh C Godefroy. Initially retaining the rank of Squadron Leader but quickly being promoted to Wing Commander. Hugh Godefroy had risen rapidly in rank, from Flying Officer, on joining 403 (Canadian) Squadron in January 1943, to Wing Commander in September. This appointment somewhat broke with the tradition the RAF of promoting from without, however, to maintain the spirit of the Kenley Wing (or 127 Wing as it had become) it was deemed appropriate to appoint a respected officer from within; also it would be a Canadian officer commanding a Canadian Wing. However, Godefroy had been born in the Dutch East Indies in 1919 to a Dutch mining engineer and Canadian mother and moved to Canada in 1925. He decided to join up after the death of his girl friend on a torpedoed ship. After flight training in Canada, he joined 56 Operational Training Unit at RAF Sutton Bridge. He was initially assigned to 401 (Canadian) Squadron, moving with them and re-equipping with Spitfires to RAF Biggin Hill in September 1941. During 1942 Godefroy was transferred to the Air Fighting Development Unit at RAF Duxford, this proved to be a boon to his skills as a fighter pilot, as at that point he had yet to shoot down an enemy aircraft. Godefroy joined 403 (Canadian) Squadron in February 1943. 403 (Canadian) Squadron moved to RAF Kenley in early February 1943 and between March and the end of July Godefroy  achieved 5 “kills”. He had been promoted to Squadron Leader in June 1943, even leading the Kenley Wing on the 20th on his promotion then deputising for “Johnnie” Johnson in the first two weeks of July on “Rodeo” and “Ramrod” missions. When he took over as Wing Commander, Godefroy already had 6 “kills” along with several damaged, being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in May 1943. From October 193, the Kenley Wing focussed on “Ramrod” missions. Frequently, they flew two missions a day even during the winter months as the Allies increased the pressure on the Germans in northern France in the lead up to Operation Overlord. During the first months of 1944, the Kenl;ey squadrons would forward deploy to other airfields in Kent to extend the reach of their Spitfires. The final operational sortie from RAF Kenly occurred on 13 April 1944 when Spitfires from 416 (Canadian) and 421 (Canadian) Squadrons flew a “Ramrod” mission to Namur. The closure of flying from RAF Kenley resulted in Hugh Godefroy joining the staff of Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst. Whilst in this role, while flying a Spitfire over the English Channel he was forced to bail out. After recuperating he resigned from the RAF and returned to Canada. During his career, Hugh Godefroy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, Distinguished Service Order and the Croix the Guerre.

Full list of operational Wing Commanders at RAF Kenley:

March 1941 – Wg Cdr J R A Peel

August 1941 – Wg Cdr J A Kent

October 1941 – Wg Cdr E N Ryder

December 1941 – Wg Cdr R F Boyd

May 1942 – Wg Cdr E P Wells

June 1942 – Wg Cdr C B F Kingcombe

November 1942 – Wg Cdr C J Fee RCAF

January 1943 – Wg Cdr K L B Hodson RCAF

March 1943 – Wg Cdr J E Johnson

September 1943 – Wg Cdr H C Godefroy RCAF

 

Sources

Action Stations Vol. 9 Military Airfields of the Central South and South-East, Chris Ashworth, Patrick Stephens Limited 1985

The Canadian Fighter Pilot & Air Gunner Museum (www.flyingforyourlife.com)

Men of the Battle of Britain, Kenneth G Wynn, CCB Associates 1999

RAF Kenley Station Diary, The National Archives, Kew

R.C.A.F. Overseas Volume 1: The First Four Years, Oxford University Press 1944

R.C.A.F. Overseas Volume 2: The Fifth Year, Oxford University Press 1945

Traces of War (www.tracesofwar.com)

Wing Leader, “Johnnie” Johnson, Air Data 1956

403 (Canadian) Squadron ORBs (www.rcafassociation.ca/heritage/history/403-squadron-orb)

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